As he sits on board a narrowboat, wearing his sandals, stroking his beard and with a copy of the Guardian by his side, STEVEN GAUGE, right, the former Croydon parliamentary candidate who helped run Nick Clegg’s election tour last year, reflects on an interesting few days at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham
It has been one of the better conferences I have been to in a while. If I’m honest, the annual political festival of LibDemmery has in the past been a little formulaic, predictable and ever so slightly pointless. This year, we are “In Government”, which makes it all rather different.
There are government ministers around making government announcements. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but boy does it beat being the perpetual “also-rans” of British politics.
And there’s even an added Croydon twist to matters LibDem this year, which has been missing for a while.
The editor of Inside Croydon has asked me to type a few words about the conference, and I’m happy to oblige, mostly so that in my forthcoming book, My Life as Hooker, he will let me mention his contribution to the third worst rugby side in Surrey [Editor's note: we were the worst side in Surrey when I played].
Croydon has featured a lot in the national news but not much on the LibDem agenda in recent years.
Memories are fading of the Croydon by-election Liberal win in the dim and distant days of the SDP Alliance. The one and only person who was elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Croydon, Ian Atkins, lost his seat in 2008 after eight years and hasn’t looked back. Gone are the days when Coulsdon’s Peter Billiness, John Callen and Roy Douglas would study the Liberal Conference agenda and submit a 14-page list of pedantic and pernickety amendments.
With this year’s Electoral Commission’s boundary proposals, though, this all might change. The LibDem-held Carshalton & Wallington constituency is due to be split and a chunk of it joined up with parts of Conservative-held Croydon South. Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake could go head to head with whoever the Conservatives select to succeed Richard Ottaway.
Brake was marching around conference this week with a look of steely determination. With a busy programme of fringe meetings and conference debates, he did not look like a man who was planning to give up the fight.
He was interesting when, as the party’s home affairs spokesman, after the conference debate on last month’s riots, Brake said: “Complex problems require carefully considered solutions not soundbytes. Liberal Democrats will continue to push for effective evidence-based policies to cut crime and boost rehabilitation.
“That means tough sentences for serious crimes and tough community sentences for low level offenders.”
Perhaps one of the strongest speeches of the week came from the LibDem candidate for London Mayor, Brian Paddick.
The former senior police officer was scathing of the Met’s response on the nights of August 6 and 7 in north London, and echoed much of what Inside Croydon has reported in the past month about 8/8 when he claimed that there were not enough officers on the streets, with police apparently content to catch up with the CCTV footage later.
“With pictures of looters walking out of shops with their ill-gotten gains, walking past police officers unchallenged, being beamed around the country,” Paddick told the conference, to loud applause, “was what I believe resulted in copycat violence, not only in other parts of London, but in other parts of the country.”
Brake, who is the co-chairman of the Liberal Democrat backbench committee on home affairs, also spoke at a fringe meeting with Liberty’s Shami Shakrabati on Human Rights and has written about the party’s decision to take another more liberal look at the nation’s drug laws.
Croydon Liberal Democrats, such as they are, were keen to debate drug laws, too. They had only recently held a members’ meeting on the subject and were pleased that the subject was coming up for debate at the federal conference.
It’s a far cry from my day as prospective parliamentary candidate for Croydon South back in 1997. As my first job as a new candidate, I was frog-marched off to the home of one local member to be lectured on the subject of land value taxation for several hours, and I could rarely get ordinary members to talk about anything other than the latest bit of local traffic management.
So, if the Electoral Commission gets its way, parts of Croydon may get a little more attention from the Liberal Democrats over the months to come. Sadly, I’m not sure whether either Croydon is ready for them.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Croydon’s crossover constituencies bad news for Brake (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s MPs await news of a game of musical seats (insidecroydon.com)
- Lib Dem Conference 2011 – Some Conclusions (politicsontoast.com)
- ‘It’s the NHS, stupid,’ Lib Dem leadership told (guardian.co.uk)